The History of Framing the Arguments

Posted on August 8, 2017 By

by Jim Kelly


This is one part of Jim’s presentation at the Consistent Life Network 30th anniversary conference.  The second part is Common Ground, and the third one will be published later.  


The origins of the modern pro-legal abortion movement do not lie in feminism. In her 1963 classic The Feminist Mystique Betty Friedan does not even mention abortion, much less consider it a necessity for women’s equality. The late historian Mary Krane Derr has documented that early 18th and nineteenth century suffragists’ writings regularly referred to abortion as “ante-natal murder” and even as “infanticide.” In her March 14, 1875 speech Susan B. Anthony included abortion as one of the evils perpetrated by men against women. An article in Anthony’s newspaper The Revolution presciently urged “We want prevention not merely punishment. We must reach the root of the evil, and destroy it.”

So, if not feminism, what was the contemporary start of the movement to legalize abortion, and how did they frame their arguments?

The first organized support for legalizing abortion came from the eugenics and population control organizations. In 1922, the American Eugenics Society was founded and by 1931, 27 states enacted sterilization laws to remove those “unfit” to reproduce. Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1965 bestseller was entitled The Population Bomb.  A commitment to zero population growth included support for legal abortion.

The first prominent call for not reform but repeal of the abortion laws was made by Lawrence Lader who titled his 1971 book Breeding Ourselves to Death. Lawrence Lader was a co-founder of what was then called the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws and it was Lader who persuaded Betty Friedan that the newly formed National Organization for Women (NOW) should endorse abortion.

This provoked considerable conflict within NOW. There was no referendum and many delegates resigned. Four years later (1971) some chapters unsuccessfully tried to remove abortion from NOW’s “Bill of Rights for Women” because they found it impeded their work on other crucial women’s issues (day care, medical insurance, neighborhood schools, etc.)

The most prominent and mainstream abortion opposition social movement organization is the National Right to Life Committee, with membership in all states. In the September 1974 edition of its National Right to Life News, editor Janet Grant characterized legal abortion activists as upper-class elites. “The rich,” she editorialized, want to ‘share’ abortion with the poor. But ‘sharing’ stops when it comes to wealth, clubs, and neighborhoods. In the same issue, Donna M. Sullivan asked, “Are social pressures now geared more to getting rid of poor babies than assisting their mothers with economic problems?” The March 1974 edition found it ironic that some congressmen were arguing that abortion lowered welfare costs when Congress had spent “billions to wage a war in Indochina.” How did the Democrats lose these folks?

These right-to-life feminists are not just anecdotal exceptions. Sociologist Granberg reports studies of both pro-life and pro-choice movements in a 1978 article, “Pro-Life or Reflections of Conservative Ideology?” and expressed surprise about the clash between the empirical data and pre-research expectations. Granberg found that 56% of National Right to Life leaders opposed capital punishment, as contrasted to only 28% of all American adults. 71% disagreed with the idea that “the US should be ready and willing to use military force if necessary to assure our access to important resources, such as oil, which are necessary to our way of life.” Later studies found that while pro-choice respondents scored high on “liberal” rights issues, such as opposition to censorship and sex education, they scored lower than abortion opponents on “economic liberal” items that asked about government spending on social programs, such as housing and food stamps, higher minimum wage, and fairer taxation. How did the Republicans get these folks?

While it now appears predictable that committed legal abortion opponents find their political home in the Republican Party and legal abortion advocates in the Democratic Party, the historical fact is the exact opposite. Democrats for Life, despite what the organization says on its home page, was not founded in 1997. That’s when it was re-founded.

Early abortion opponents placed their political hopes entirely in the Democratic Party. Typical is the dramatic example of Ellen McCormack, the housewife leader of the Long Island, New York “Women for the Unborn” who, knowingly quixotic, succeeded in obtaining enough registered voters to place her name in the 1975 Democratic primaries in 20 states. She qualified for matching federal funds for her primary campaigns and had her name placed in nomination for President at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, getting 22 delegate votes. In my interview with her, she said there was no possibility that the Republican Party, the party of big business and big profits, would interest itself in “saving unborn babies.”

While Reagan did succeed in having the Republican platform committee write in the promise to repeal Roe, the way it proceeded remains highly illuminative. In her “insider’s” account (The Republican War Against Women, 1996) Tanya Melich reports that most of the Republican delegates viewed Reagan’s courting of antiabortion activists as a shrewd tactic to add numbers to a declining Republican-affiliated party base.  The delegate vote on the Reagan amendment was scheduled after midnight and the debate was limited to four speakers. Melich claims that there were sufficient pro-choice delegate voters to overturn the amendment but the convention chairman, John Rhodes, a Reagan ally, called for a voice vote and then simply declared a majority vote in favor of reversing Roe. What is far more certain is that polls of those delegates showed the vast majority didn’t favor a Roe reversal.

Reagan staffed his administration with many publicly known anti-abortion activists and selected Supreme Court replacements that many felt were likely to reverse Roe. Still, during no Supreme Court confirmation hearings did any Republican nominee explicitly or unambiguously challenge the validity of Roe.

All seven of the original Roe signers are gone and Republican presidents have nominated replacements for six of the seven. Four of these six (John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy), while finding permissible—under its “without undue burden” criteria—state efforts to encourage childbirth over abortion, reaffirmed in its 1992 Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey the Roe decision and, importantly, the significance of precedence for the Courts.

So Democrats for Life, even if wondrously successful, is but a small, though necessary, step in the ongoing effort to grasp the meaning of the opposition to abortion. The routine sociological and media framing of abortion is that it is a conservative counter-movement. Few understand its core radicalism.

While in time the disentanglement of abortion social movement organizations from the increasingly unrewarding political alliance with Republican fiscal conservatives, and the movement’s gradual turn to a consistent ethic of life, will facilitate some incremental political linkages to a growing Democrats for Life, this represents but a necessary step in a return to the movement’s originating radical core principles that a resort to violence in any form is a negation of the human good.

And no principle and no term, especially in foreign affairs, is more alien to nation state sovereignty than “nonviolence.”

The rest of our series of blog posts from presentations at our 30th anniversary conference in August, 2017:

The History of Framing the Arguments (Jim Kelly)

The Vital Need for Diversity (Sarah Terzo)

Making the Case for Peace to Conservatives (John Whitehead)

My Difficulty in Voting: Identifying the Problem (Monica Sohler)

Common Ground (Jim Kelly)

The Mind’s Drive for Consistency (Rachel MacNair)


See the list of all our blog posts, put in categories.



  1. Kevin Cushing says:

    You live in a liberal area like I do in Marin County, California or a conservative one. I’ve lived in conservative ones like Modesto, California and the Chicago area.

    Rarely are the contradictions of classic “liberal” and “conservative” ideologies exposed. I’m neither Democrat nor Republican because of that- so I am in political limbo. It’s good to finally see a group support a “consistent ethic of life” like the late Cardinal Bernadine. The Catholic Church supports that wholistic view of life, unlike most politicians.

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